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Introduction arrow Interventions arrow South Africa and the Myth of a Knowledge Economy
South Africa and the Myth of a Knowledge Economy

The National Planning Commission has tabled its plan and vision for South Africa 2030. In listing 9 main challenges Trevor Manuel, Minister of National Planning, identified two as particularly critical: too few people work; the quality of education available to most people is poor (Sunday Times 13/11/11:15). Pursuing the 'education' challenge commissioners on the NPC, Professors Malegapuru Makgoba, Jennifer Molwantwa and Ihron Rensburg (Sunday Independent 13/11/11:19), conclude that it is in making knowledge that the nation makes success.

 

But is this our priority when our schooling system is failing too many pupils and our national university profile does not compare in productivity or achievement with what the three commissioners refer to as "other upper-middle income countries"? Only 34% of South African academics have doctorates; graduation rates are poor (15%); and research publication output compares unfavourably with that of Brazil. The way forward – the three commissioners continue – is to increase doctoral graduates from 1 400 to 5 000 per annum, and to increase the proportion of academic staff having doctorates from 34% to 75% towards SA 2030.

 This all sounds laudable. The observations, however, proceed from an initial error, only to compound a mismatch of context and ambition. Despite the commissioners, South Africa – a country with a serious unemployment and literacy problem – cannot meaningfully and productively be classified as an upper-middle income country. Given that we are not an upper-middle income country, the second error is that the road to success lies primarily in a knowledge economy.

 A knowledge economy – as I understand it – discovers and patents new products and/or processes.  It requires that we cease to be primarily an extraction economy (gold, platinum) and enter into a culture of IT innovation in a service society. (Impossible, anyway, given our high cost of telecommunications!) But is China a knowledge economy? Are the other members of BRICS knowledge economies? While computer software may be manufactured in China – under licence – China is not the home of its invention.

 China does not see its ambition as the innovator, for example, of an electric car. Let that be the innovation of Nissan or General Motors, companies with vast R&D resources. But in South Africa the Department of Science and Technology has invested significantly in the development – a spluttering development – of a Joulle electric car.  Should we not be tooling up, instead, to assemble the Indian-produced Tata Nano, or be making two-wheel transport more cheaply available to our wider citizenry? As Brett Hamilton in Car magazine has said, "Aren't we just California dreaming!" (June 2011).

 To pursue the mismatch of context and ambition, Brazil with a population of 200 million is placed in direct research-output comparison with South Africa's 45 million. But what is not made clear is that Brazil's research measurement is broad-based (outputs of variety are recorded). South Africa is constrained by a 'global cringe' analysis: only articles in a single US-commercial citation index (ISI) are valued by our local science community.

 If such an index virtually ignores the arts and social sciences, it entirely ignores – as one might expect – any publication outlet for the article on Zulu, or Xhosa, or Sotho language or culture.  For all our grand talk of language policy our research model – dare I say it!  – remains a neo-colonial model.

 And what do we make of doctoral figures when Portugal – on the verge of economic meltdown – is credited with 569 doctorates per million, in comparison with 288 in the UK? Probably Portuguese youngsters have no job opportunities, so continue studying. Perhaps at taxpayer expense. Hence Portugal's red flag status in the Eurozone.

 A science/technology drive – we were at one point led to believe by education policy-makers – would be a panacea for all our ills. This might have credence in industrious, upper-middle income South Korea. But as we still hanker after old Soviet-speak (comrades; cadres), we should remain alert to the consequences of a science/technology drive in the non-competitive former Eastern Europe: a glut of taxi drivers with engineering doctorates.

 We need to get real. The low proportion of academics with doctorates is partly because our universities include fields which in Europe or the US are not always part of universities, but are housed in specialist institutions: for example, the music conservatoire. To compound an under-par schooling system, our first degree is inadequate to the training of under-prepared students or, indeed, future doctoral candidates. The enclosure of teacher training within the narrow BEd degree is resulting in a generation of teachers without the necessary content knowledge or skills – say, in English or science – to educate the next generation.

 There is one sentence in the report of the three commissioners that hints at the real, but is swallowed by the Joule-like mismatch of context and ambition. The sentence is: "Complementary actions will need to be undertaken in further education and training." As Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Blade Nzimande, has recognised, we need to restore efficient vocational apprenticeship training in South Africa – one tangible route to success.

 It is a route that will require its own investment in a re-education of attitudes: that a university degree is not the only mark of social status.  I deliberately avoid the word success, as many graduates – particularly those with a token pass at 50% – will not necessarily prosper in the workplace.

 A final point to emphasise is the need for judicious leadership. As Trevor Manuel has noted, a successful civil society requires consistent leadership underpinned by a separation of State powers. He refers to the public service, but leadership is a key challenge whether in the public service, business, the unions, or our institutions of education.

 (The Sunday Independent, 20 November 2012: 8)

 
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